This Saturday marks the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes. Let’s take a look at the history of Belmont Park and some of the memorable moments of the “Test of Champions.”
Belmont Park was the brainchild of August Belmont Jr. When it opened for it’s inaugural meeting in 1905, the facility was a marvel for its time. It was larger and more opulent than any other racetrack in the country.
Due to its deteriorating condition the track was rebuilt after the 1962 racing season. Opened for business again in 1968, the new version of Belmont was applauded for its attractive grounds and architectural design. It was built to accommodate large crowds in an era when upwards of 40,000 fans attended the races on any given Saturday. With the advent of OTB, Simulcast and the Casino boom those days are long over.
Plans have been made to replace the existing structure with a state of the art sports complex at the Long Island landmark. The racing facility will be built on a more manageable scale, allowing for a comfortable, fan friendly experience.
The Belmont Stakes has long been the premier event of the track’s prestigious Spring meeting. August Belmont Sr. founded the race in 1867. It had its inaugural running at Jerome Park. The elder Belmont was one of the original owners of the long departed track.
The race is the third jewel of the Triple Crown Series. It is one of America’s most sought after horse racing trophies. No less than 21 winners of the event have been named Horse of the Year in the 87 years that there has been polling for that honor. Of note, although there had been conflicting ones since 1936, it was not until 1971 that they were consolidated as one of the first Eclipse Awards.
Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner in 1919. Since then 36 three year olds have come to Belmont Park with Triple Crown aspirations. 23 of them failed in their attempt to navigate the mile and a half oval. The 13 that pranced into the winner’s circle have achieved immortality.
Those that took the Crown are familiar names. Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah are among them. The above mentioned are in the elite of America’s greatest racehorses.
Secretariat is without question the most memorable winner of the race.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of his awe inspiring performance. He absolutely annihilated his opposition with a 31 length victory. Add to that a
world record for the mile and a half distance.
Man O’ War, America’s most revered race horse took the 1920 Belmont by 20 lengths. He easily set the world record for the one and three eighth miles event. In 1926 the race was lengthened to its current mile and a half distance. Unfortunately the wonder horse was not entered in the Kentucky Derby, denying him what would have been a cakewalk to the Triple Crown.
The immensely talented Count Fleet turned more than a few heads when Johnny Longden guided him to a 25 length score in the 1943 rendition.
The three great warriors had beaten their opponents by a combined total of 76 lengths. Their grand exploits on the racetrack earned this trio first class tickets to the Pantheon of Champions.
Let’s take a look at a few of the unlucky ones that came so close to the Crown. One that stands out in the annals of the race is Tim Tam. In 1958 the Calumet Farms runner looked like a cinch to join Calumet’s Whirlaway and Citation as Triple Crown winners. To this day he is the shortest priced betting favorite to race in the Belmont Stakes. During the stretch run Tim Tam broke a bone in his right foreleg. He hung on for a gallant second to the Irish bred Cavan. Tim Tam is an honored member of horse racing’s Hall of Fame.
When we look at the could have beens, the great champion Spectacular Bid requires attention. It was a forgone conclusion that he would take the Belmont and join the Triple Crown Club. Unfortunately he stepped on a pin in his stall the night before the race. He most likely would have overcome that, except for an amateurish ride by his young and inexperienced jockey Ronnie Franklin. He chased a front running long shot who had absolutely no chance of winning the race. The foolish maneuver put an end to The Bid’s dream. His trainer Grover G Delp called him “the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle.” The heartfelt quote can be taken seriously…Spectacular Bid, a champion of the highest order.
Then there was Real Quiet. He took both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1998. At the Belmont Stakes he drew clear of the field, only to be run down by Victory Gallup at the wire. With the closest finish in the history of the race, a mere nose separated Real Quiet from the immortals.
There won’t be a Triple Crown winner in this running of the Belmont Stakes. It by no means take diminishes the importance of the race. It stands on its own as one of Americas greatest sporting events.
Time is running out for the 1968 version of Belmont park. Soon work will begin on its transformation to an all new experience. The reconstruction effort will begin after next years Spring meeting. It is expected to reopen in 2026.
This Saturday, June 10th will be one of the last opportunities to witness the race at historic Belmont Park as it looks today. Sit back, take in the experience and enjoy the excitement that will unfold at the Belmont Stakes.. An American Tradition.